Ananda Metteyya/Allan Bennett (1872–1923)

Elizabeth Harris

Allan Bennett was one of the first British people to be ordained as a Buddhist monk (bhikkhu) in Asia, taking the name Ananda Metteyya. He was a liminal figure who stretched across different nineteenth and early twentieth-century contexts. He was well-educated but experienced poverty and chronic illness. He was able to live in colonial Ceylon and Burma because of British imperialism but mercilessly critiqued the failings of Britain’s imperial ambitions. Before gaining higher ordination (upasampadā), he was a Theosophist and a ceremonial magician within the Order of the Golden Dawn, becoming a close friend of Aleister Crowley, and he never gave up the yogic practices he learnt from a Hindu teacher in Ceylon. For Buddhists in Ceylon, he became a symbol of the developing confidence of Buddhism under imperialism, but for some Westerners, he was a dubious figure and a ‘sham’ monk. For yet others in the West, he remained essentially a magician and a master of esotericism. After his death he was claimed and appropriated both by occultists, followers of Crowley, and by Asian and Western Buddhists.

Allan Bennett/Ananda Metteyya preferred to refer to himself as Ananda M, even after he disrobed toward the end of his life. He was a prolific and fluent writer, convinced that the West could only be saved from its consumerism, individualism, and violence through Buddhism. Both from Yangon and after he returned to Britain in 1914, he sought to communicate the teaching of the Buddha in ways Westerners might be able to understand. His representation of Buddhism combined sensitivity to lived Buddhism in Asia and a conviction that the Buddha’s teaching was compatible with the contemporary science of his day. He drew from the Pāli canon and commentaries such as the Visuddhimagga but did not fall into the orientalist trap of seeing texts as the sole bearer of meaning within Buddhism. One of his main priorities was to contest misconceptions of Buddhism, for example that it was pessimistic (an accusation beloved by Christian missionaries), essentially esoteric (a view advocated by some Theosophists) or unsuitable for the activist West. In contradistinction to these views, he argued that Buddhism was rational, devotional, ethical, and centred on the practice of compassion. He defended devotion as a legitimate response to the self-sacrifice of the Buddha and resisted modernist reductions of the Buddha’s life and significance.

This article contextualizes Allan Bennett/Ananda Metteyya within the spiritual seekership of the late nineteenth century. Its main focus is Ananda Metteyya’s representation of Buddhism and the factors that conditioned it, together with his role in the early transmission of Buddhism to the West.

1 Placing Ananda Metteyya in the context of the late nineteenth century and review of his life

1.1 Early life

Charles Henry Bennett (Allan was adopted as a name in his adolescence) was born in Notting Hill, London, on 8 December 1872 to a woman who had changed her name from Charlotte P. Corbyn to Mary Ann Bennett, possibly because her two children were born out of wedlock. At first, Bennett lived under the financial protection of his fairly affluent maternal grandparents, Louisa and Wardle Corbyn (1811–1880). By the time Bennett was eleven years old, however, his mother and both his grandparents had died. He and his sister, Charlotte, found themselves in straightened circumstances, in an expanding city, polluted by coal-burning and building construction. The chronic asthma from which Bennett suffered throughout his life began in childhood, exacerbated by these difficult circumstances.

Bennett, in later life, claimed that secular knowledge destroyed the Christian faith of his childhood, his mother having been a Roman Catholic. Scientific advances inspired him at an early age. By the time he was sixteen, he was probably working in a laboratory. At eighteen, he was a student at the Colonial College in Suffolk, taking courses in agriculture, horticulture, and possibly building construction. He returned to London to work with an analytical and consulting chemist, Bernard Dyer. Throughout his life, he kept abreast of scientific developments and could have become a scientist of some repute. However, his scientific bent developed alongside a spiritual search. Late nineteenth-century Victorian Britain offered many opportunities for this. As Christian narratives were challenged by scientific discovery, spiritual seekers and ‘free-thinkers’, who wanted to move beyond what they saw as worn-out, traditional beliefs, turned to spiritualism, ancient Egypt, Kabbalah, ceremonial magic, and the religions of ‘the East’. At this time the boundaries between science, myth and the spiritual were porous ( [vol. 1]).

The Theosophical Society, founded in 1875 by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–1891) and Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907) was particularly attractive to free-thinkers. It eventually sought wisdom from Buddhism and Hinduism. Bennett joined it in March 1893, at the age of twenty, but he could have been reading Buddhist and Hindu material before then and also practising yogic meditation. He would later claim that he read Edwin Arnold’s poem, The Light of Asia [about the Buddha] at the age of eighteen (e.g. Humphreys 1953: 18; Harris 1998: 4). As a Theosophist, he lectured in London on what is commonly known as the ‘Egyptian Book of the Dead’, alchemy, astrology, and medieval magic. The content of these talks has not survived. His interest in the practice of ceremonial magic drew him also to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, founded in 1888 by Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers (1854–1918) and William Robert Woodman (1828–1891). Unlike the Theosophical Society, the Golden Dawn insisted that its members not only learnt the theory of esotericism but also practised ceremonial magic, for instance rituals that invoked divine power or angelic beings, or consecrated magical implements. Bennett took his first initiation in June 1894 and quickly progressed through the Order’s different grades, becoming an ‘Inner Order’ initiate in March 1895. He eventually became known as one of the best ceremonial magicians within the Order, writing and performing his own rituals, the most well-known being The Ritual for the Evocation unto Visible Appearance of the Great Spirit Taphthartharath (Gerald Yorke Collection, Warburg Institute, University of London, NS,71; [vol. 2] for a comparative study of four versions of this ritual). In 1899, Aleister Crowley (1875–1947), who later became notorious because of his occult practice, joined the Order and took Bennett as his teacher, offering him accommodation in his own apartment. This relationship would influence the whole of Bennett’s life and his posthumous legacy. Bennett and Crowley were known to take the name ‘MacGregor’ at times, in honour of one of the founders of the Order.

1.2 Journey to colonial Ceylon

Bennett’s asthma was worsening at this time, and Crowley facilitated a passage to colonial Ceylon for him (hereafter Ceylon), a place considered better for his health. Before going, he gave most of his magical notebooks to Crowley, turning his gaze towards Buddhism and meditative experience, interests that had been present in his life at least since he joined the Theosophical Society. He possibly gained accommodation and contacts in Ceylon through a Sri Lankan Buddhist in London, Wilmot Arthur de Silva (1869–1942) ( [vol. 1]; information gained by the author from Ven. Handupelpola Mahinda Nayake Thera, who researched Ananda Metteyya for a DVD production: Madawela 2008). Among these contacts were Richard and Jeannie Pereira (née Wilson), who introduced him to Ven. Veragampita Rēvata Thera, a scholar monk at Divigalahēna Dēvāgiri Purāna Vihāraya in Kumburugamuwa, in the south of Ceylon. Bennett spent six months there, learning Pāli, possibly intending to take novice ordination. Oral memory in the village suggests that he even attempted to preach in Pāli. Returning to Colombo in August 1900, perhaps disillusioned by the lack of meditation practice at the monastery, he became a pupil of a Śaivite guru and politician, Ponnambalam Ramanathan (1851–1930), whom he may well have heard about or met before he arrived in Ceylon. Under Ponnambalam, he reactivated his earlier interest in yoga and meditation in the Hindu tradition.

In July 1901, now self-identifying as a Buddhist, after studying many Pāli texts and experiencing the lived religion, Bennett gave a paper on the Four Noble Truths to a largely Buddhist audience at the Hope Lodge of the Theosophical Society. His presentation demonstrated a competent knowledge of Pāli literature and would have convinced his audience of his commitment to Buddhism. His emotional and lengthy explanation of the first noble truth, that of dukkha (Pāli), translated normatively as pain or suffering, also betrayed his own experiences of hardship and illness. Shortly afterwards, Crowley visited him and paid for them both to rent a bungalow in Kandy for a yoga retreat. Evidence from Crowley’s notebook from this time suggests that they mainly used the methods taught to Bennett by Ponnambalam, together with Buddhist jhāna (meditative absorption) practice (Gerald Yorke Collection, Warburg Institute, University of London, OS 42). Although Bennett’s mind was now turning towards ordination as a Buddhist monk, yogic meditation including breath control, would remain part of his personal practice.

1.3 Ordination in colonial Burma and the founding of the Buddhasāsana Samāgama

Bennett was ordained in Akyab (now Sittwe) in colonial Burma (hereafter Burma), receiving novice ordination in December 1901 and upasampadā (higher ordination) the following May, when he was named Ananda Maitriya, which he later changed to Metteyya (Turner 2020: 61, 140–145; ). His ordination address voiced his hope that he would take Buddhism to the West and eventually establish monastic communities there (Ananda Maitriya. 1902c). Soon afterwards, he left Akyab for Mandalay, where he received a second ordination within a reformist monastic community, the Shwegin Nikāya, and also established, with the help of sponsors, the Buddhasāsana Samāgama (International Buddhist Society).

By 1903, Metteyya was living in Rangoon, with the help of a wealthy sponsor, Mrs May Hla Oung. In March 1903, he re-constituted the Buddhasāsana Samāgama with a journal, Buddhism: An Illustrated Quarterly Review. Shortly afterwards, in April 1903, he returned to Ceylon for two months, at the invitation of the Pereiras, to open a new preaching hall named after him, Maitriya Hall, on the outskirts of Colombo ( [vol. 1]). On return, he worked on the first issue of Buddhism, which appeared in September 1903. International networking was key to this work. The first issue listed representatives of the Society in Austria, Germany, Italy, Sri Lanka, and China, and honorary members in England, the United States, and Denmark. By 1904, Buddhism was being sent free to between 500–600 libraries in Europe (Harris 1998: 10).

As Metteyya had hoped, Westerners were drawn to his work. John McKechnie (1871–1951) offered his services in business management free and was eventually ordained in Burma as Ven. Sīlācāra. Anton Gueth (1878–1957) came to Burma to gain advice about ordination from Metteyya and became Ven. Ñyāṇatiloka.

1.4 Mission to Britain in 1908

In April 1908, Metteyya led a mission to London, accompanied by twenty-three Burmese lay followers, including Mrs Hla Oung. In preparation for the visit, Dr Ernest Reinhold Rost (1872–1930), son of the orientalist, Reinhold Rost (1822–1896), one of Metteyya’s sponsors in Rangoon, had formed, whilst on leave, the Buddhist Society for Great Britain and Ireland, in preparation for the mission (Rost 1930: 273; Humphreys 1968: 4–5). Before and during the mission, members of the Society issued press releases and gave media interviews so that the mission was known throughout Britain and Ireland. On arrival, Metteyya live in rented accommodation in Barnes, arranged by Rost, and established, to the delight of the Asian press, Britain’s first Buddhist temple there. His activities during the six months of the visit were diverse and included: media interviews; informal conversations from his house in Barnes and ‘at homes’ in other residences; giving a paper on ‘Religious Experience in Buddhism’ at the Third International Conference for the History of Religions in Oxford; and numerous lectures at different venues in London, including the Royal Asiatic Society, Kensington Town Hall, Highgate Unitarian Church, the Spes Bono Club, the Helena Blavatsky Lodge of the Theosophical Society, Battersea Town Hall, the City Temple Debating Society, and the Sunday evening meetings of the Buddhist Society of Great and Britain and Ireland. He sailed back from Liverpool and gave his last lecture there, at the Alexandra Hall. Metteyya’s hope had been that thousands would convert to Buddhism during the mission. This did not happen.

Although he was animated in private conversation, his speaking style was not easy to follow – he spoke with eyes cast down, respecting Burmese monastic practice, and read from a script. In reality, he left behind him a cash-strapped Buddhist Society with about 150 interested adherents, out of which twenty or thirty had become Buddhist (Ananda Metteyya. 1909: 7; [vol. 1]).

During the mission, the Irish Buddhist monk, U Dhammaloka (c. 1856–c. 1913), with whom Metteyya had already struggled in the press, published an article in the journal, Truth, which accused Metteyya of not being recognized in Burma as properly ordained and of having been turned out of three monasteries because of his asthma (Dhammaloka. 1908: 5; Turner 2020: 143). Ananda M was given the right of reply and successfully overturned these accusations, which kept his mission on track from the perspective of the Buddhist Society.

1.5 Return to Burma

Metteyya’s health deteriorated after his return to Burma and his hopes continued to be thwarted. Buddhism ceased publication, although the Buddhasāsana Samāgama continued to work in the field of education and raised money to help Buddhists in Britain. Metteyya also attempted to raise money through his scientific inventions but was not successful. He first intended to return to Britain in 1911 or 1912 to establish a monastery, when he would be a Thera and able to ordain others, and an appeal for funding was launched in both Ceylon and Burma. However, doubts arose about the feasibility of the project, both in terms of the finance necessary and Metteyya’s health. In addition, his reputation suffered through being implicated in a court case in Britain, after a British periodical, The Looking Glass, published a series of articles in October 1910 about esoteric rites that Aleister Crowley and his associates had performed publicly at Caxton Hall in London. Although Metteyya had not been involved in these, he was named as one of Crowley’s close friends, together with George Cecil Jones (The Looking Glass 1910). The articles also reiterated the false accusations that had been made by U Dhammaloka, namely that Metteyya was a ‘sham monk’. Jones took the journal to court in the Jones vs The Looking Glass suit and lost. That Ananda M did not challenge the articles was interpreted by some as an indication of guilt ( [vol. 1]).

1.6 Last years in Britain

In 1914, Ananda Metteyya returned to Britain a sick man, with chronic asthma and gall stone problems. He disrobed before the voyage because the journey necessitated the use of money. Technically, he was again Allan Bennett, although, when writing, he continued to call himself ‘Ananda M’.

Metteyya hoped to join his sister on her return to the United States but was refused passage by the ship’s doctor, who feared he would be denied entry on arrival in America (Humphreys 1937: 35). The members of the Liverpool branch of the Buddhist Society cared for him, helped by money raised in Asia and Britain. At some point during the First World War, his health had improved enough for him to return to London to aid the Buddhist Society. Between 1918 and his death in 1923, he worked prodigiously, although continuously afflicted by asthma. He addressed the Buddhist Society, gave a series of lectures at the apartment of the dramatist and journalist, Clifford Bax (1886–1962) in the winter of 1919–1920 (Bennett 1923), edited and wrote for The Buddhist Review, the journal of the Buddhist Society, raised money for the Society, and continued scientific experiments in the hope that one of his devices could be patented.

Ananda M died on 9 March 1923 of an intestinal obstruction. A Buddhist funeral was composed for him by one of his early followers, Francis Payne. He was buried in Morden cemetery on 14 March (Humphreys 1937: 44; [vol. 1]).

1.7 Metteyya’s liminality

The life of Ananda Metteyya stretched across different nineteenth and early twentieth-century contexts. He was well-educated but knew poverty intimately, elite but not rich. He was able to live in Ceylon and Burma because of British imperialism but critiqued the arrogance of that imperialism. In terms of religion, he was brought up as a Roman Catholic, practised esoterism and ceremonial magic as a young man, and converted to Buddhism, whilst maintaining the practice of some forms of Hindu yoga. For Asian Buddhists he became a symbol of the developing confidence of Buddhism under Western imperialism and the possibility of Buddhism becoming a Western religion. For some in Britain, however, he was a dubious and ambiguous figure, linked with an esotericism from which convert Western Buddhists were trying to distance themselves.

2 Ananda Metteyya’s thought

2.1 The dialogical context of Metteyya’s thought

Metteyya’s writing was conditioned by several factors in his environment both in Asia and the West. The most important were: the confrontation between evangelical Christian missionaries and Buddhists in Ceylon and Burma, and the negative missionary representation of Buddhism (e.g. Harris 2012); the popularity of Theosophy in the West and its representation of Buddhism (e.g. Sinnett 1883); the writing of Western orientalists who reduced Buddhism to its texts; the growing materialism and individualism in Britain, the product of an expanding capitalistic culture.

With these factors in the background, Metteyya’s representation of Buddhism sought to contest the misrepresentations and misunderstandings of Buddhism that he believed to exist, particularly in the West. He took his audiences into account, modifying his message according to what he saw as their differing needs. If he did not receive the hoped-for response, for instance during his 1908 mission to Britain, he struggled with how his message could be conveyed without the label, Buddhism. At the heart of his own appreciation of Buddhism were: the principle of karma, described by him as the rule of law; anattā (Pāli; Skt: anātman, non-self); the radical interconnectedness of all life (One Life); the existence of higher planes of consciousness; and the critical importance of compassion.

2.2 Contesting misrepresentations of Buddhism and the Buddha

Metteyya’s first article in Buddhism, the journal that he published from Rangoon, was entitled ‘The Faith of the Future’. The article named and contested three misunderstandings of Buddhism: that Buddhism was ‘heathen’ and idolatrous; that it was ‘a mysterious sort of affair’ linked to ‘esotericism’; that it was apathetic and pessimistic ‘with annihilation as its goal and aim’ (Ananda Maitriya. 1903d: 25). The first was the accusation most frequently levelled at Buddhism by Christian missionaries. The second referred to the theosophical reading of Buddhism and the last was a more general representation found both in the writings of missionaries and other Western writers on Asia. In response to these, Metteyya argued that the Buddha image had nothing to do with a god and, therefore, could not be idolatrous. For Buddhists, it was like having a portrait of a dear one near so that they could ‘think upon the incomparable Life he [the Buddha] lived, the love He had, the Law He taught – and that is all’ (Ananda Maitriya. 1903d: 26). On the question of mystery and ‘esotericism’, he revealed the prejudices of his day against Mahāyāna Buddhism, namely that it was the West’s encounter with Mahāyāna texts, which he saw as corruptions of the original teachings of the Buddha, that had created this misrepresentation. In addition:

One other thing has tended to enhance the conception of Buddhism as a mystic Religion, namely, the fact that the founders of a widely- spread mystical movement called Theosophy used—and some of their followers still use,— many Buddhist technical terms in their works;—one of the earlier of these, indeed, being termed ‘Esoteric Buddhism’; and containing as one of its fundamental teachings that very doctrine of the existence of an immortal soul (Sansk. Ātman) in man which the Buddha so constantly denied. (Ananda Maitriya. 1903d: 28, original parentheses)

Expanding this, he likened the theosophist insistence that the Buddha taught the existence of an ‘Ātman’ to ‘an endeavour to represent the Founder of Christianity as maintaining the non-existence of a Father in Heaven’ [God]. He continued:

We think that if our friends the Theosophists were to take the trouble to study our Scriptures, and if they understood how deeply Buddhists feel on this point, that they would surely cease from thus misrepresenting One for whom they profess the profoundest veneration. (Ananda Maitriya. 1903d: 28–29)

He, nevertheless, stated that he was thankful to Theosophists for being the ‘forerunner’ of Buddhism. If anattā (non-self) had been taught first, only hostility would have been aroused. As for esotericism:

In conclusion, we wish to state, with what authority long study of the Master’s teaching, and the Yellow Robe can give us, that there is nothing whatever of an esoteric nature about Buddhism – it is all open to the light of day and we are too proud of it to deem some part of it necessary for concealment. (Ananda Maitriya. 1903d: 29)

On the question of the goal of Buddhism, Metteyya argued that nothing could be further from the truth than the view that Buddhism was a pessimism that undermined ‘the energy of its adherents, rendering them undiligent and apathetic’ (Ananda Maitriya. 1903d: 30), adding:

In its assertion of the power of culture over evil, of nurture over nature, Buddhism is surely no Pessimism but rather the proudest Optimism ever declared to man in the guise of a Philosophy or a Religion. To say, again, that Buddhism aims at final extinction is not true – the Goal of Buddhism is not in the hereafter, but here in the life we live – its Goal is a life made glorious by self-conquest and exalted by boundless love and wisdom. (Ananda Maitriya. 1903d: 30)

In the same issue of Buddhism, Metteyya included a lecture he had given on nibbāna (Pāli; Skt: nirvana), possibly in Ceylon (Ananda Maitriya. 1903c). This amplified his words in ‘The Faith of the Future’ and entered debate not only with Christian missionaries but also with orientalists such as Robert Childers (1838–1876), who had argued for a distinction between the gaining of enlightenment in this life and the ‘annihilation’ of the enlightened one at death (Harris 2006: 121). Responding, Metteyya encouraged his readers to begin where Buddhists would begin, namely with the doctrine of anattā (non-self). Rebirth was not to be seen as the reincarnation of a soul but as the transference of energy or ‘tendencies’, Metteyya’s translation of sankhāra (Pāli: mental formations), from one life to the next. Nibbāna was the ending of birth and rebirth, driven by the law of kamma (Pāli; Skt: karma – action), and he cited positive references to it in the texts. As for nibbāna after death, in a direct affront to scholars such as Childers, he represented it as ‘that Light beyond’, the greatness of which humans did not have the capacity to fully grasp (Ananda Maitriya. 1903c: 128):

Beyond the radiance of Sun and Moon and Star, further than the Dark Void beyond, far past the Gates of Birth and Death It [nibbāna] reigns, Immutable, Supreme. Beyond the inner Consciousness of man, wherein these worlds and systems and the far-reaching Æther that includes them float like a grain of dust in the abyss of space;—beyond that vaster sphere where Thought and Non-thought co-existent dwell, where the last faint passing echoes of act and speech and thought blend with the Silence and are heard no more;—beyond all these It is; yet here, here in our hearts this day, albeit uncomprehended and unperceived; to be gained in this our human life alone, to be attained here on earth by him who follows on the Eightfold Way our Master taught. (Ananda Maitriya. 1903c: 133–134)

The poetic nature of Ananda Metteyya’s writing can be seen here and also traces of his experience in meditation. In 1919, he would describe nibbāna both as ‘Beyond all naming and describing’ and as ‘nearer to us than our nearest consciousness; even as, to him who rightly understands, it is dearer than the dearest hope that we can frame’ (Bennett 1923: 124–125).

A further misrepresentation, according to Metteyya, was the orientalist view that Buddhism was only a philosophy and not ‘a living, breathing Truth’ (Bennett 1923: 7). Metteyya did not contest that Buddhism was rational but he did oppose textualized representations of the religion that ignored the lived tradition, particularly the devotion of the people. In the first of the lectures he gave in London in 1919–1920, he contrasted the feeling of ‘Oneness’ that could be experienced at night under a ‘moonless, star-lit’ sky, when one could glimpse the ‘sacrifice’ that permeated all existence, with that of ‘waking to the sunlight’. When he read books about Buddhism, Metteyya continued, it had been like the starlight. Only when living in Ceylon and Burma had he awoken to the sunlight of Buddhism, realizing that Buddhism in Asia penetrated everything as a ‘vivid, potent living force’, so that the very air seemed to pulse with it (Bennett 1923: 7; [vol. 1]). Lived Buddhism is particularly present in a serialized article that he published in Buddhism, ‘In the Shadow of Shwe Dagon’, which began with an intense meditative experience on one of his visits to the Pagoda (Ananda Maitriya. 1903a; [vol. 1]). This was one of the few times that Metteyya wrote directly about his own practice of meditation.

Metteyya’s appreciation of lived religion also resulted in him defending Buddhist devotion and contesting orientalist reductions of the person of the Buddha. The search for the historical Buddha was not as important for him as appreciating the Buddha’s self-sacrifice and his more-than-human status in the eyes of Buddhists. He, therefore, wrote that the Buddha’s preparation for Buddhahood during numerous lives represented a sacrifice, born out of compassion, that ‘was so great, so utterly beyond our ken, that we can only try to dimly represent it in terms of human life and thought and action’ (Bennett 1923: 16–17). In Metteyya’s mind, it was this, together with the Buddha’s enlightenment, that contributed to his more-than-human status.

2.3 Buddhism, the rule of law, and the role of meditation

The first article that Metteyya wrote for publication after his novice ordination was ‘Animism and Law’ (Ananda Maitriya. 1902a). Published in Ceylon and directed at Ceylonese Buddhists, it sought to strengthen them in the context of aggressive Christian missionary activity (Harris 2006: 101–109; 2012). Metteyya was courteous in his day-to-day encounters with Christians but, in ‘Animism and Law’ and other writings, he mounted a devastating critique of theistic beliefs. The article argued that religions such as Hinduism and Christianity were the culmination of an animism that had begun with the belief that events were caused by gods and demons, and had ended with a ‘Supreme Being’. Such animism, he wrote, could lead to a ‘savagery’ that, in the Middle Ages, had resulted in ‘more than forty million persons’ being ‘burned alive, tortured to death, hanged, drowned, and killed in all sorts of horrible ways: - all in the name of God’ (Ananda Maitriya. 1902a: 34). He contrasted this with the ‘rule of law’, present in the work of scientists such as Newton and supremely in Buddhism, which he described as the ‘sole exception […]to the animistic tendency of religious thought’, because of its stress on the ‘Law called Karma’ (Ananda Maitriya. 1902a: 38). Later in his life, he would link faith in a Supreme Being with the childhood of the human race.

‘Animism and Law’ ended with meditation, which was the point at which Metteyya began his next article, also published in Ceylon – ‘On the Culture of Mind’ (Ananda Maitriya. 1902b). It spoke to what he saw as a lacuna in Ceylon at that time, the in-depth practice of meditation. The article concentrated largely on samatha (Pāli; Skt: śamatha, tranquility) meditation rather than vipassanā (Pāli; Skt: vipaśyanā, insight) and particularly recommended the four brahmavihāras (Pāli and Skt, divine abidings) as objects: mettā, karunā, muditā and upekkhā in Pāli, which Metteyya translated as love, pity, sympathy, and indifference. Towards the end, he drew on the Visuddhimagga (Chapter 13.13–71) to describe a method of remembering past lives through training the memory. He placed this firmly in a Buddhist framework, stressing that the practice would convince the meditator of the dukkha, the suffering, of repeated existences. He would not dare to write or speak publicly again about this practice until the lectures he gave in London in 1919–1920. One of the reasons for this was possibly that Aleister Crowley, to whom Metteyya gave a copy of his article, seized on the practice and made it part of his esoteric system, stressing that it enabled the true Self to be found, present in numerous incarnations. He also published his own version of the article (Ananda Metteyya. 1911).

Meditation, however, played an important part in Metteyya’s personal spiritual life, and his achievements were considerable. In his ordination address, he spoke of ‘the World Beyond, the World of Pure Consciousness’ (Ananda Maitriya. 1902c: 13), in a way that evoked this experience. It is probable that he combined Buddhist methods, particularly attainment of the jhānas (meditative absorptions) and the ārupa (formless) states with yogic methods taught to him by Ponnambalam Ramanathan. However, his writings did not concentrate on meditation practice, in spite of ‘On the Culture of Mind’. One of his fears was that achievement in meditation that was unaccompanied by an appreciation of anattā (non-self) could increase egotistical thinking and pride. Another was that the term ‘meditation’ would convince Westerners that Buddhism was esoteric.

In 1910, he wrote a significant article entitled ‘The Religion of Burma’ for a prestigious colonial publication, Twentieth Century Impressions of Burma: Its history, people, commerce, industries and resources (Ananda M. 1910), published by Lloyds. It was the closest Metteyya came to identifying with British imperialism and his willingness to write for it was no doubt due to the opportunity it gave him to communicate what he saw as the heart of Buddhism to the West. What he omitted, therefore, was as important as what he included. Significantly, meditation was only given a peripheral mention to avoid any implication that Buddhism was linked to the esoteric.

When outlining the dhamma, the teaching of the Buddha, the article focussed on the first two clauses of Dhammapada verse 183: Not to do evil; to do what is good; to purify one’s own mind; this is the teaching of the Buddha. When he reached the third clause ‘purifying the mind’, he concentrated on the term anattā, not using the term ‘meditation’ at all. When referring to the Eightfold Path, he explained sammasati (Pāli; Skt: samyak-smṛti) as ‘watchfulness of all our mental operations’ and sammasamādhi (Pāli; Skt.: samyak-samādhi) as ‘right ecstacy’, saying only that this entailed methods of training the mind leading to ‘various realms of conscious life’ and ‘Arahantship’ (Ananda M. 1910: 114).

In the fifth of his lectures in Clifford Bax’s studio, entitled ‘The Path of Attainment’, however, he did cover meditation, knowing his free-thinking audience would be familiar with the term. Taking Dhammapada verse 183 again he presented meditation in a way that combined anattā and the jhānas. His starting point was the concept of satipaṭṭhāna (Pāli: the foundations of mindfulness/recollectedness), which he explained as ‘noting accurately’ what one was doing, whilst holding the awareness, ‘This is not I; this is not Mind; there is no Self herein’ (Bennett 1923: 94, original emphasis). This ‘thinking impersonally’, he argued, was essential so that ‘a more or less permanent megalomania’ was not established (Bennett 1923: 97) in the next step, the concentration that could lead to the jhānas and ārupa states. He then outlined two concentration practices: remembering past lives through training the memory as he had previously given in ‘On the Culture of Mind’; focusing on what he called ‘the Four Sublime States’, namely the brahmavihāras, so that they flooded the consciousness. The latter, he claimed could lead to the first jhāna, the experience of which convinced one ‘of the illusion of this life’, that life ‘is in truth but a little cloud, a tenuous film, as it were, upon the surface of that vast Consciousness, in which you function’ (Bennett 1923: 105).

2.4 Buddhism as antidote to Western consumerism and individualism

The concept of anattā (non-self) was key not only to Ananda Metteyya’s debate with Theosophy but also with the whole of Western society, dominated, as he saw it, by growing materialism, individualism, and self-centredness. Just before his mission to Britain in 1908, Metteyya wrote:

Buddhism stands in no attitude of opposition or rivalry to any form of religious belief. But it is our opinion that, especially in respect of the clarity with which this teaching of Selflessness is in it insisted on, it is able to supplement, to go further than, any other system in bringing men to the comprehension of the true cause of that ever-rising tide of human agony, which, even now, is threatening the very fabric of Western civilisation with ruin. For in the unerring balance of the Law of Kamma, the suffering of the many weighs heavier far than all the attainments of the few. (Ananda Metteyya. 1908: 192).

The true cause of the ‘agony’, according to Metteyya, was existential. Earlier in the article, he had written autobiographically of the crisis a person sensitive to the suffering in the world passed through in the West, with the result:

If he had had faith in God,—in some great Being who had devised the Universe, he can no longer hold it; for any being, now he clearly sees, who could have devised a Universe wherein was all this wanton war, this piteous mass of pain coterminous with life, must have been a Demon, not a God. (Ananda Metteyya. 1908: 185)

Metteyya’s conviction was that belief in God was a fiction born of desire (MacGregor 1902: 15) and that Buddhism could speak with authority to the despair and hopelessness that had been reached by many in the West who had similarly rejected the existence of God, by pointing to the cause of ‘all this misery’, namely ‘the false conception of the Self’:

There is no Self,—or great or small or high or low; and it is by reason of this Self-delusion that beings glamoured by the World’s Illusion, by Nescience, by Not Understanding, still lie bound upon the Wheel of Life, still suffer and still cause to suffer. Life, so far as it is individualised, enselfed, ensouled, is,—even as the Reason teaches,—evil, coterminous with Pain […] Give up all hope, all faith in Self; realise its fraught Illusion; renounce those hopes for immortality, cravings for a future life! Live only for the All,—thus you may bring Sorrow’s Ending nearer for that which Nescience calls the Not-Self. Dream no more ‘I am’ or ‘I will be,’ but realise, Life suffers; and only by destruction of life’s cause in Selfhood can that suffering be relieved, and Life pass nearer to the Other Shore. (Ananda Metteyya. 1908: 186–187)

This was the message Metteyya was convinced the West should hear. He frequently used the term, ‘All life is One’ and it is evoked in the last sentence of this passage. Theosophists also used this concept but, in Metteyya’s thought, it denoted that all sentient life was interconnected, united, through the three characteristics of existence: anicca (Pāli; Skt: anitya, impermanence), dukkha (Pāli; Skt duḥka, pain, suffering); and anattā.

2.5 Compassion as the only response to the suffering of the world

As important to Ananda Metteyya as the realization of anattā was the fruit of that realization. In his first lecture in Ceylon on the Four Noble Truths, he gave himself the task of describing Buddhism in one word and chose, ‘pity’, because it implied love and sorrow (MacGregor 1902: 18). He would later expand on this numerous times stressing that when the ‘Self’ no longer reigned, pity and compassion for all beings caught in pain could arise. Compassion, he believed, could transform the West and turn it away from individualism.

As he anticipated his mission to England from Burma, his hope that the West could be moved towards a more compassionate way of life was strong, such that, in 1904, he apocalyptically wrote:

Surely that day will come, though Sorrow, servant of Nescience, be tardy in the teaching […] Hatred grown into Love, and all the darkness of Ignorance illumined by the Light of lights, which is the Law of Uttermost Compassion:—thus shall it be on earth when the Great Law shall have at last worked out the Destiny of Man:—in that supremest Day when Love and Wisdom shall have conquered all Humanity, and opened for all feet to tread the Way to the Illimitable Peace. (Ananda Metteyya. 1904: 376)

This optimism was severely dented after Metteyya’s mission to Britain and his experience of the First World War. Towards the end of his life, he encapsulated his thought on this in ‘Buddhism: The Religion of Compassion’, written for The Buddhist Annual of Ceylon. His argument was that the only spiritual achievement of any worth was compassion, which, in Buddhism, was the fruit of wisdom and understanding. He wrote, ‘The measure, indeed, of the civilization of a race may properly be meted by the extent to which it manifests Compassion; or as we rightly term it, the highest attribute of the human mind,—Humanity’ (Ananda M. 1921c: 32, original emphasis). He claimed that it shone out through every page of the Sutta Piṭaka. He speculated, ‘Had this Message been carried throughout the world as our Great Master bade, who knows but that the awful pain and tribulation of these latter years might have been avoided?’ (Ananda M. 1921c: 33), namely the years of the First World War.

2.6 Critique of Christianity and British imperialism

A more compassionate society was what he sought in the West and this led to an uncompromising critique of the rhetoric of empire, namely that the West was the carrier of civilization and could take the moral high ground. In ‘The Faith of the Future’, he asked whether ‘the modern civilisation of the West’ had diminished ‘the world’s misery, its poverty, its criminality’ or had increased ‘the happiness of those who pursue it’. He continued:

Apart altogether from the misery that that civilisation has spread in lands beyond its pale, can it be claimed that in its internal polity, that for its own peoples, it has brought with it any diminution of the world’s suffering, any diminution of its degradation, its misery, its crime; above all, has it brought about any general increase of its native contentment, the extension of any such knowledge as promotes the spirit of mutual helpfulness rather than the curse of competition;— has it brought to the peoples of the West a lasting increase in mental peace, of solidarity, of deep and enduring happiness? (Ananda Maitriya. 1903d: 12)

His answer was ‘no’, offering as additional proof the increase in ‘munitions of war’ in the West, together with its ‘crowded taverns’, ‘overflowing gaols’, and ‘sad asylums’ (Ananda Maitriya. 1903d: 12–13; Harris 2013: 88).

Elsewhere, he addressed English nationalism:

It is the Wrong View: “I am English; glorious English nationality is mine, so it behoves me to fight against persons who have another sort of Self-Theory, and say: ‘No, but a Teuton I.’” It is that Wrong View which now makes necessary that the bulk of resources of every branch of the West-Aryan is wasted on armaments of war – wasted, when so much might, in the present state of our knowledge, be achieved by man, were that great wealth to be expended in combat[t]ing, not only physical disease, but also those far more fatal mental sicknesses to which so much Western misery is due. (Bennett 1929: 217–218, original emphasis)

2.7 Metteyya, the Aryan theory, and evolution

Ananda Metteyya brought into his writing two racist theories that were part of orientalist and indeed theosophical discourse in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: an Aryan theory that placed Indo-Aryans at the peak of human spiritual development; an evolutionary theory that was linked with religion, race, and human progress. The place of the Aryan theory within European imperialism has not been given adequate attention (Angell 1998: 42). At first, it was a linguistic theory. It then became racial. The fact that Sanskrit and Sinhala, the dominant language of Ceylon, were judged to be structurally similar to the family of European ‘Aryan’ languages developed into the view that those who spoke these languages were Aryan and, therefore, ‘cousins’ of Europeans. Influenced by this, Metteyya was convinced that Indians and Ceylonese Buddhists constituted one branch of a superior ‘Aryan’ race that had spread to the East and the West from a point in Central Europe. His writings demonstrate that he judged the eastern Aryan wing, namely the peoples of India and Ceylon, to be superior to the Western wing, because they had chosen spiritual development. The Western wing, which included the British, had chosen materialism and wealth, and were, therefore, spiritually inferior to the East (e.g. Ananda M. 1910: 103–104; Ananda M. 1921a). It is possible that he was influenced in this by Ponnambalam Ramanathan, since this view was also present among Hindus who taught spirituality in the West. Incidentally, this meant that Metteyya praised the Burmese people not because they were Aryan but because they had preserved the teaching of the Buddha, which Metteyya saw as the culmination of the spiritual search chosen by the Indian subcontinent.

Theosophical cosmology envisaged seven root races, with sub-races within each one. Each was on an evolutionary journey through the cosmos. Metteyya rejected this cosmology but nevertheless used the concept of evolution to describe the spiritual development of the ‘races’ of the world from childhood to adulthood. Two evolutionary movements are mentioned in his writing, the first connected with morality, and the second with wisdom and understanding (Harris 1998: 48–49). Within the first, the age of childhood was when good was done from fear of punishment. Adolescence was when good was done for selfish reasons, namely with the realization that doing good would bring good consequences. Adulthood was the product of renouncing belief in a Self or soul, when good was done out of pure compassion, with no expectation of reward (Ananda Metteyya. 1905: 1–7). He saw all of these stages within Burmese Buddhists and sought, through his articles in Buddhism, to push them towards what he saw as ‘adulthood’.

Within the second evolutionary movement, childhood was characterized by ‘blind faith’ in a Supreme Being. Metteyya placed most Christians in this category. Adolescence was when ‘blind faith’ was replaced by investigation and questioning. When Metteyya looked towards the West from Burma, he saw this age of investigation in the advances of science and spiritual searching. Adulthood arose when questioning turned into understanding the nature of reality along Buddhist lines.

2.8 Communicating the message of Buddhism to the West without labels

During his mission to Britain, Ananda Metteyya spoke at a Christian church in Clapham. Rost was in the audience and wrote that ‘no one could tell till the end that he was not preaching Christianity’ (Rost 1930: 273). This was typical of Metteyya’s method when speaking to non-Buddhists. He believed that the link in the West between Buddhism and esotericism was distorting Buddhism and preventing Westerners from opening themselves to what Metteyya saw as Buddhism’s key message. This eventually led him to the view that Buddhism could be communicated to the West without using the term Buddhism at all. The principle of karma, the importance of selflessness and the developing of compassion were not dependent on the term. Society could be changed through Buddhist values without it. Justifying this, he wrote to a friend in about 1910:

But to no true Buddhist does it at all matter whether that label [Buddhist] is born by men or no. The only question is, to get the Truth home to our fellows’ hearts; to help – so far as our own small knowledge of the Dhamma goes – to plant seeds in others’ minds. (Ananda Metteyya. 1931: 62)

Further reflections on this can be found in section 4.

3 Placing Ananda Metteyya within the framework of Orientalism

3.1 Introductory comments

Edward Said was one of the first to theorize the European production of knowledge about the East under imperialism (Said 1978). Using the term, ‘Orientalism’ and placing his work within cultural and political studies, Said argued that Orientalism was a tool of Western domination and distorted ‘the East’ in order to exert power over it. If this is taken as definitive of the term ‘Orientalism’, Ananda Metteyya would only partially enter this framework. His journey into Buddhism was possible because of British imperial control over Ceylon and Burma, and, in both countries, he embodied privilege because of the colour of his skin. Additionally, he certainly sought to produce and communicate knowledge about Buddhism from this position of privilege. However, within Said’s framework, orientalists were outsiders, gazing at the ‘Other’ from a position of power. This was not true of Metteyya. He occupied a more liminal position as a cultural outsider to Buddhism but a religious insider. When he opened the Maitriya Hall in Colombo, which had been founded as an ‘outer court’ to improve Buddhist education for Ceylonese accustomed to Western learning, he justified agreeing to the invitation by describing his own sense of liminality:

I, too, am of that outer court – a watcher at the gate; and, though my knowledge be but little in comparison to that of those whose lives have been passed in the Palace within, yet I also am of the yellow robe, one beholding as from afar the glories of the Palace – and mine is the language and the mode of thought of those that dwell without. I am able to speak with men in the gate, to tell them, in a tongue they understand, a little of our Palace of the Truth – and so deemed that without offence I might presume so far as to perform this function – even in the presence of the dwellers in the inner court. (Ananda Maitriya. 1903e: 182)

Unlike most Western orientalists, Metteyya identified with the object of his study through becoming an insider and his invitation to Westerners was that they should also internalize and practise the Buddha’s teachings. For instance, ‘The Religion of Burma’ was not simply a description of Buddhism. It invited a response through using the second person, going beyond its remit:

If you can win to that [Nirvana], you bring all life a little nearer to its goal; to win to it you have to realise the final truth – the truth that there is no self at all – that this certain-seeming selfhood is but a delusion, direst of all the bondages of mind, of life. Enter, then, on this way of peace; enter it by self-restraint, by self-renunciation. Live, work, strive, no more for self but for pity of all life; so by reforming yourself, may you help to relieve the pain of all, and bring your little wave of life to break at last upon the further shore. (Ananda M. 1910: 114)

This personal positioning broke the frame of Said’s generic orientalist. Occasionally, however, Ananda Metteyya was known to have suggested to the Buddhists of Myanmar that they might not have got everything right, for instance on the issue of anattā. When giving a lecture to the Rangoon College Buddhist Association in 1906, he argued that soul theories were a dangerous illusion and urged his elite listeners to eradicate ‘the local form of soul theory’ present in rural areas (Ananda Metteyya. 1906: 32).

3.2 Contesting Orientalist textualization of Buddhism and the reduction of the Buddha

Scholars who applied Saidian theory to Buddhism and Hinduism stressed that Westerners who communicated Buddhism to the West under colonialism mined the religion to serve Western interests and needs, representing it as a rational religion through a selected number of its texts, influencing and to a large extent producing what has been called Buddhist Modernism. Within this representation, Buddhism and science were compatible, Buddhist devotion was downplayed, and the Buddha was reduced to a remarkable, human, religious teacher.

Ananda Metteyya consciously engaged with these representations, contributing to some and contesting others. He contested, for instance, Orientalism’s textualization of Buddhism, through the previously mentioned comparison between a starlit night and sunlight. Although Metteyya learnt some Pāli and drew on the Pāli texts and commentaries in his writing, particularly the Visuddhimagga, he continuously pointed Western audiences to the differences between the texts and Buddhism as a lived reality. For Metteyya, Buddhism could not be contained within the texts and should not be defined by them alone.

Popular lay devotion to the Buddha lay within this lived reality and Metteyya championed it as a legitimate response to what the Buddha had given to the world, as this article has already demonstrated. He had little time for the devotion that sought to appease or petition a higher power but the devotion that remembered, celebrated, and sought to emulate the Buddha was life-giving and not to be judged superstitious or irrational. Above all, it could lead to a more compassionate and non-violent world. Metteyya also contested Westerners who sought to reduce the enlightened Buddha to the human level, although he was quick to stress that the part of the biography of the Buddha that attracted the Burmese people most was before his enlightenment, because of the human qualities present (Ananda M. 1910: 109):

But when like all of us, he knew not; when, for pity of the pain of all that lives, he gave up all to follow what the worldly deem a shadow; when he made mistakes, as in those six years of vain self-torture, and learning their folly, was forsaken by his disciples in that he could no longer follow what he saw to be untrue;—then, then the hearts of men can think of him, then the thought of him can move our lives to greater nobleness, stirring our life’s depths until we long – how vainly – to grow a little nearer to his likeness; to live a little nearer to the life he lived. (Ananda M. 1910: 109)

In contrast, after enlightenment, according to Metteyya, the Buddha became more than human, in a category that all but forbade comparison with those who had not yet reached enlightenment. This diverged radically from missionary representations of the Buddha as an ardent spiritual seeker who came to the wrong conclusions (e.g. Spence Hardy 1866: xxxii) and scholar orientalists such as T. W. Rhys Davids, who sought to cut through hagiographical accounts to a ‘historical’ biography that showed the Buddha as a humane man, who sought to reform brahmanical culture (Rhys-Davids 1894: 30–38; Harris 2006: 128–129).

3.3 The compatibility of Buddhism and science

Ananda Metteyya concurred, nevertheless, with the orientalist view that Buddhism and science were compatible. From his youth, Metteyya was passionately interested in scientific advances. His purpose-built accommodation in Rangoon, provided by Mrs Hla Oung, was both a laboratory and a residence. The journal Buddhism demonstrated that he kept abreast of scientific discoveries, for instance Marie Curie’s discovery of radium and the work of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge (Ananda Maitriya. 1903b: 158). At different points in his life, he attempted to patent his inventions ( [vol. 1]), hoping to raise money for the promulgation of Buddhism in the West. He was particularly interested as a Buddhist monk in finding scientific methods for measuring mental formations and other theories of the mind, as given in texts such as the Visuddhimagga. For him, scientific truth and religious truth were intimately connected.

As a young man, Metteyya’s enthusiasm for science and its capacity to contribute to humanity’s appreciation of truth was considerable. The First World War shattered this optimism. He wrote in 1920:

That marvellous advance of physical science during the past century has been to a great extent unaccompanied by such parallel improvement in matters of morality and self-restraint as was essential to the preservation of stability; with the lamentable result that the tremendous forces which science has placed within our hands have found their most fertile field of application in the direction of the creation of new and most terrible means of effecting the wholesale destruction of human life. (Ananda M. 1920: 186)

He added,

For stability it is essential that every advance in the conquest over nature should be accompanied by an equal advance in the conquest over self:—over the spirits of greed and passion and ambition, which have brought this late calamity upon our Western world. (Ananda M. 1920: 186–187, original emphasis)

Again, this moves Ananda Metteyya outside the frame of orientalism into social critique in the context of imperialism.

3.4 Ananda Metteyya as precursor of contemporary emphases in Buddhist Studies

If Ananda Metteyya is placed within the framework of Buddhist Studies rather than that of Orientalism, some interesting points arise, suggesting that he was a precursor of several late twentieth-century scholarly developments in the study of Buddhism. Lived religion was important to him together with what might now be called a ‘re-enchanted Buddha’, namely a Buddha represented through narrative traditions and devotional acts, unrestricted by the lens of Western historical method. Both are now important within Buddhist Studies (e.g. Strong 2001; Paine 2004; Pemaratne 2020).

Metteyya also struggled at a conceptual level with how to categorize the Buddhism of Ceylon and Burma and how to communicate what he saw as its fundamental truths. In connection with the first, LeRoy Perreira has argued that Metteyya was the first person who used the term, Theravāda, to indicate a school of Buddhism, namely the entire religious culture of the Buddhist countries united by the Pāli canon (LeRoy Perreira 2012: 532–559). Others have argued for greater complexity when approaching this question (e.g. Bretfeld 2012). Nevertheless, this has placed Metteyya at the centre of debates concerning the scholarly categorization of Buddhist traditions.

Metteyya’s project to communicate the Buddha’s message without the label, ‘Buddhism’ had a missionary intention behind it. However, his struggle can be seen as a precursor of Secular Buddhism, pioneered by Stephen Batchelor (e.g. Batchelor 2012), with his stress on the pragmatic, applied, and non-dogmatic nature of Buddhism. As this chapter has demonstrated, Metteyya was more interested in the potential of Buddhist practice to transform society than in encouraging his readerships to assent to a set of beliefs. This places him not only at the fringes of Secular Buddhism but also firmly within Engaged Buddhism, before either term was used. Illness prevented him from being a social activist, but his writing continually stressed that the betterment of human society was the fruit of Buddhist practice.

4 Ananda Metteyya and the negotiating of boundaries within British/Western Buddhism

4.1 Claimed by both esotericists/occultists and Buddhists

Ananda Metteyya, as this article has shown, rejected the esoteric interests of his youth, when he became a Buddhist monk. However, his esoteric background and his friendship with Aleister Crowley came back to haunt him throughout his life, particularly through the previously mentioned articles in The Looking Glass and Crowley’s own writings. For instance, in 1912–1913, Crowley published his central book of ceremonial magic, Liber ABA or Book Four, which contained multiple references to Allan Bennett and his Golden Dawn rituals (Crowley 1997; see also Crowley 1908; and [vol. 1]). In Crowley’s eyes, Allan Bennett remained his teacher of ceremonial magic and yogic meditation, and was surrounded with this aura whenever Crowley mentioned him. Moreover, Crowley’s writings were more popular and populist than The Buddhist Review.

In the 1950 and 1960s, after Crowley’s death in 1947, interest in the esoteric and occult systems of Crowley grew and Allan Bennett was frequently associated with them, as an almost mythical figure, a guru of magic ( [vol. 1]). Letters of Crowley, for instance, posthumously published in 1954, made frequent mention of Bennett as his teacher (Crowley 1954) and writings by Bennett became part of Crowley’s magical systems. In this process, Bennett/Metteyya was hooked back into esotericism, some esotericists claiming that his period as a Buddhist was short-lived (e.g. Colquhoun 1975: 147–148; [vol. 1]).

At the same time as this was happening in esoteric circles, Metteyya continued to be remembered as an exemplary Buddhist missionary in Ceylon and Burma. Among British Buddhists, on the other hand, he was remembered with a warmth that was tinged with ambiguity and paradox as the next section demonstrates.

4.2 The negotiation of boundaries between Buddhism and the esoteric in Britain

The previously mentioned articles in Truth and The Looking Glass not only damaged Metteyya’s reputation but also impacted on the work of the Buddhist Society of Great Britain and Ireland, which was trying to establish itself as a respectable, religious institution. Although the Society stood by Metteyya, it was in their interests to distance themselves from views that linked Buddhism with the esoteric. After Metteyya had returned to Burma from the 1908 mission, for instance, the Society stated in their journal:

[S]ome attempts have been made to surround him [Ananda Metteyya] with mystery. There is no more mystery attending Bhikkhu Ananda Metteyya than any other person. It should always be remembered that there is no mystery as such – there is nothing ‘esoteric’ – in true Buddhism. (Ellam 1909: 3)

The Buddhist Society, therefore, in an attempt to keep its reputation clean, turned its face away from a stream that had been important within the entry of Buddhism into Britain, namely Theosophy and the esotericism connected with it.

These boundaries, however, were similar to those that Metteyya himself was drawing at this time, seen in his wish to communicate the message of the Buddha without labels and to play down meditation. In addition, shortly before his death, Bennett published ‘The Miraculous Element in Buddhism’ (1921), an article which stressed that, although Buddhism recognized the ‘so-called miraculous’, miracles were not a sign of truth. The article also critiqued spiritualist phenomena and the idea of ‘spirit guides’, present in Theosophy (Ananda M. 1921b).

After Bennett’s death in 1923, the Buddhist Society became weaker and eventually collapsed in 1926. Two further Buddhist initiatives were emerging as this happened. One of them brought Theosophy back into Buddhism in Britain, through the work of Travers Christmas Humphreys (1901–1983), who formed a Buddhist Centre within the Theosophical Society in 1924 to draw together those who saw identity between Buddhism and Theosophy. This became a Buddhist Lodge in 1924 and, in 1926, cut its link with the Theosophical Society. In 1943, it became The Buddhist Society.

The second initiative was dependent on the work of the Sri Lankan Buddhist revivalist, the Anagārika Dharmapāla (1864–1933). At first, it appeared that Humphreys and Dharmapāla could work together in promoting Buddhism in Britain, but their paths eventually diverged with Dharmapāla buying two houses in London, one of which became a vihāra (temple/monastery), with the first group of Buddhist monks arriving from Ceylon in 1928.

Some Asian and British Buddhists in London were involved with both initiatives but, for others, however, the differences between them were too great for enthusiastic collaboration, the most important being Humphrey’s theosophist leanings. Significantly, the legacy of Ananda Metteyya lay behind this, in diverging ways. First, British Buddhists who had sat at the feet of Metteyya had learnt that anattā (non-self) lay at the heart of Buddhism and so were critical of Theosophy, with its belief in an evolving ‘Self’. These tended to support Dharmapāla’s largely Theravāda initiative. In turn, Humphreys claimed that he would have been embarrassed if his initiative had been linked only with Theravāda Buddhism (Humphreys 1968: 26). Second, the lid could not be placed on Metteyya’s esoteric, theosophist, and magical past, and his link with Aleister Crowley. Both Buddhist initiatives, therefore, sought to draw boundaries around Buddhism so that these categories did not appear porous in the eyes of the public. Illustrative of the lines that were drawn is Francis Story’s comment on early Buddhism in Britain, when he published extracts from The Buddhist Review in the 1960s:

It cannot be denied that there are some questionable personalities vaguely associated in the public mind with the early Buddhist movements, but the dabblers in the occult, make-believe magi[c]ians and other picturesque poseurs were not Buddhist in any sense, and most of them were not even on the fringe of genuine Buddhist activities. (Story 1981: 5)

Ananda Metteyya was not linked with these ‘poseurs’ in Story’s book but they would certainly have included Crowley. Metteyya, therefore, was both an inspiration to Buddhists in Britain and also, because of his early spiritual search, a foil, for the self-definition of early British Buddhists.

5 Ananda Metteyya’s legacy within contemporary Buddhisms

Ananda Metteyya’s legacy can still be detected in both Asian and Western Buddhism. In Asia, Metteyya became a symbol of Buddhism’s resilience and confidence under British colonialism, during his life and posthumously. In Sri Lanka, he is still remembered within the Servants of the Buddha, an organization founded by Cassius Pereira, son of Richard Pereira and a friend of Metteyya. Their 2021 centenary publication represented Metteyya as an honorary founder of the society, because of this friendship and the bond between ‘East and West’ that it represented (Senanayake 2021: 40; Wijeyesekera 2021: 9–10). In addition, one of the most respected scholar monks in twentieth-century Sri Lanka, Balangoda Ānanda Maitreya (1896–1998), chose to be named after him at his higher ordination in 1916 (Gombrich 1988: 299–300). When the author met him in 1994, he expressed pride in the provenance of his monastic name. In Myanmar, Western writings on Metteyya have been translated into Burmese and are even found on popular pavement book stalls (e.g. Harris 1998). His name appears in Dhamma school resources and in university courses. In Asia, Metteyya is primarily seen as an inspirational Buddhist missionary to the West, and a symbolic counterbalance to Christian missionary activity and the rhetoric of the British Empire.

Within Western Buddhism, Metteyya’s liminality between West and East, and between esotericism and Buddhism, helped to shape the ethos of early Buddhism in Britain, as it negotiated boundaries between different strands of spirituality in the early twentieth century. This had a profound effect on Western Buddhism and Buddhist Modernism. Within Buddhist Studies, these boundaries are now being broken down with a recognition of the impact of Theosophy and esotericism on Western Buddhism (Tweed 1992; ). In addition, the existence of the esoteric in Asian Theravāda Buddhism is also being recognized, challenging Metteyya’s early twentieth-century, contextually-driven insistence that the two were incompatible (e.g. Crosby 2020).

In the 1990s, the memory of Metteyya as a Buddhist missionary to Britain was reinvigorated by the Sri Saddhatissa International Buddhist Centre in north-west London, through a series of annual United Kingdom Buddhist Days that were explicitly linked to Metteyya, who was represented as founder of Buddhism in Britain through his 1908 mission. The first was held in 1996. In 2008, the centenary of the 1908 mission was commemorated by the Centre in style. Brent Town Hall was booked for the event, a DVD on Metteyya was produced (Madawela 2008) and a scholarly collection of articles was published (Deegalle 2008).

Allan Bennett/Ananda Metteyya, therefore, remains a central figure in the history of the transmission of Buddhism to the West, in the memory of contemporary Buddhists in Asia and the West and in the contemporary discipline of Buddhist Studies.


Copyright Elizabeth Harris (CC BY-NC)


  • Further reading

    • Almond, Philip C. 1988. The British Discovery of Buddhism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    • Harris, Elizabeth J., and John L. Crow. Forthcoming. Allan Bennett, Bhikkhu Ananda Metteyya: Biography and Collected Writings. Volume 1 and 2. Sheffield/Bristol, CT: Equinox.
    • Howe, Ellic. 1972. The Magicians of the Golden Dawn: A Documentary History of a Magical Order, 1887–1923. Wellingborough: Aquarian Press.
    • Humphreys, Christmas. 1968. Sixty Years of Buddhism in England 1907–1967. London: The Buddhist Society.
    • McMahan, David L. 2008. The Making of Buddhist Modernism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Turner, Alicia. 2014. Saving Buddhism: The Impermanence of Religion in Colonial Burma. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
  • Works cited

    • Ananda M. 1910. ‘The Religion of Burma’, in Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon: Its History, People, Commerce, Industries and Resources. Edited by Arnold Wright. London: Lloyds Greater Britain Publishing Company, 102–116.
    • Ananda M. 1920. ‘To Our Readers’, The Buddhist Review 10, no. 4: 181–187.
    • Ananda M. 1921a. ‘The Doctrine of the Aryas’, The Buddhist Review 11: 149–163.
    • Ananda M. 1921b. ‘The Miraculous Element in Buddhism’, The Buddhist Review 11: 127–136.
    • Ananda M. 1921c. ‘The Religion of Compassion’, The Buddhist Annual of Ceylon 1, no. 2: 31–33.
    • Ananda Maitriya. 1902a. ‘Animism and Law’, The Buddhist 12, no. 2: 29–41.
    • Ananda Maitriya. 1902b. ‘On the Culture of Mind’, The Buddhist 12, no. 3: 53–68.
    • Ananda Maitriya. 1902c. ‘The Address’, in The Foundation of the Sangha of the West Being an Account of the Upasampada Ordination of the Bhikkhu Ananda Maitriya (Allan Bennett Macgregor) At Akyab, Burma on the Full-Moon Day of Vesakha 2446 (May 21st 1902). Rangoon: Hanthawaddy Press, 5–18.
    • Ananda Maitriya. 1903a. ‘In the Shadow of Shwe Dagon’, Buddhism 1, no. 1: 101–112.
    • Ananda Maitriya. 1903b. ‘News and Notes’, Buddhism 1, no. 1: 145–162.
    • Ananda Maitriya. 1903c. ‘Nibbana’, Buddhism 1, no. 1: 113–134.
    • Ananda Maitriya. 1903d. ‘The Faith of the Future’, Buddhism 1, no. 1: 6–38.
    • Ananda Maitriya. 1903e. ‘Western Education for Buddhist Bhikshus: Address of the Bhikkhu Ananda Maitriya Delivered at the Opening of the Maitriya Temple at Colombo, on the 25th April, 1903’, The Buddhist 13, no. 8: 181–187. Concluded in 13, no. 9, 199-203.
    • Ananda Metteyya. 1904. ‘The Law of Righteousness’, Buddhism 1, no. 3: 353–376.
    • Ananda Metteyya. 1905. ‘Right Aspiration’, Buddhism 2, no. 1: 1–24.
    • Ananda Metteyya. 1906. A Lecture on Anatta. Rangoon: The Rangoon College Buddhist Association.
    • Ananda Metteyya. 1908. ‘Propaganda’, Buddhism 2, no. 2: 169–192.
    • Ananda Metteyya. 1909. Extension of the Empire of Righteousness to Western Lands: Address of Bhikkhu Ananda Metteyya Director of the Buddhasasana Samagama at the Sixth Annual Convention of the International Buddhist Society, December 27. Mandalay: Chanea Press.
    • Ananda Metteyya. 1911. ‘The Training of the Mind’, The Equinox 1, no. 5: 28–59.
    • Ananda Metteyya. 1931. ‘Extracts from Letters to a Friend in England by Ananda Metteyya’, The Buddhist Annual of Ceylon: 59–65.
    • Angell, Marisa. 1998. ‘Understanding the Aryan Theory’, in Culture and Politics of Identity in Sri Lanka. Edited by Mithran Tiruchelvam and C. S. Dattathreya. Colombo: International Centre for Ethnic Studies, 41–71.
    • Batchelor, Stephen. 2012. ‘A Secular Buddhism’, Journal of Global Buddhism 13: 87–107.
    • Bennett, Allan. 1923. The Wisdom of the Aryas. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co.
    • Bennett, Allan. 1929. ‘The Three Signata’, in The Religion of Burma and Other Papers. Adyar: Theosophical Publishing House, 112–176.
    • Bretfeld, Sven. 2012. ‘Resonant Paradigms in the Study of Religions and the Emergence of Theravada Buddhism’, Religion 42, no. 2: 273–297.
    • Colquhoun, Ithell. 1975. Sword of Wisdom: MacGregor Mathers and ‘The Golden Dawn’. Neville Spearman: London.
    • Crosby, Kate. 2020. Esoteric Theravada: The Story of the Forgotten Meditation Tradition of Southeast Asia. Boston, MA: Shambhala.
    • Crowley, Aleister [Perdurabo]. 1908. ‘The Man in the Yellow Robe. An Intimate Study’, What’s On (13 June): 17.
    • Crowley, Aleister. 1954. Magick Without Tears. Hampton, NJ: Thelema Publishing Company.
    • Crowley, Aleister. 1997. Magick Liber ABA, Book Four, Parts I-IV. Edited by Hymenaeus Beta. York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser. 2nd edition.
    • Deegalle, Mahinda (ed.). 2008. Dharma to the UK: A Centennial Celebration of Buddhist Legacy. London: World Buddhist Foundation.
    • Dhammaloka. 1908. ‘Entre Nous’, Truth (8 July): 65.
    • Ellam, John E. 1909. ‘Editorial’, The Buddhist Review 1, no. 1: 1–5.
    • Gombrich, Richard, and Gananath Obeyesekere. 1988. Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
    • Harris, Elizabeth J. 1998. Ananda Metteyya: The First Buddhist Emissary of Buddhism. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society.
    • Harris, Elizabeth J. 2006. Theravāda Buddhism and the British Encounter: Religious, Missionary and Colonial Experience. London/New York: Routledge.
    • Harris, Elizabeth J. 2012. ‘Memory, Experience and the Clash of Cosmologies: The Encounter Between British Protestant Missionaries and Buddhism in Nineteenth Century Sri Lanka’, Social Scientists and Missions 25, no. 3: 265–303.
    • Harris, Elizabeth J. 2013. ‘Ananda Metteyya: Controversial Networker, Passionate Critic’, Contemporary Buddhism 14, no. 1: 78–93.
    • Harris, Elizabeth J., and John L. Crow. Forthcoming. Allan Bennett, Bhikkhu Ananda Metteyya: Biography and Collected Writings. Volume 1 and 2. Sheffield/Bristol, CT: Equinox.
    • Humphreys, Christmas. 1937. The Development of Buddhism in England: Being a History of the Buddhist Movement in London and the Provinces. London: The Buddhist Lodge.
    • Humphreys, Christmas. 1953. ‘Obituary – Ven. Ananda Metteyya: The First English Bhikkhu’, The Middle Way XXVIII, no. 1: 18–19.
    • Humphreys, Christmas. 1968. Sixty Years of Buddhism in England 1907–1967. London: The Buddhist Society.
    • LeRoy Perreira, Todd. 2012. ‘Whence Theravāda? The Modern Genealogy of an Ancient Term’, in How Theravāda Is Theravāda? Exploring Buddhist Identities. Edited by Peter Skilling, Jason A. Carbine, Claudio Cicuzza, and Santi Pakdeekham. Thailand: Silkworm Books, 443–571.
    • MacGregor, Allan. 1902. ‘The Four Noble Truths’, The Buddhist 12, no. 1: 9–20.
    • Madawela, Tissa. 2008. Bhikkhu Ananda Metteyya and His Legacy: 100 Years of Buddhism in the UK. London: World Buddhist Foundation/Sri Saddhatissa International Buddhist Centre. DVD.
    • Paine, Jeffrey. 2004. Re-Enchantment: Tibetan Buddhism Comes to the West. New York/London: W. W. Norton.
    • Pemaratne, Soorakkulame. 2020. ‘Reviving the Buddha: The Use of the Devotional Ritual of Buddha Vandanā in the Modernization of Buddhism in Colonial Ceylon’, Journal of Global Buddhism 21: 29–50.
    • Rhys-Davids, Thomas William. 1894. Buddhism: Being a Sketch of the Life and Teachings of Gautama, The Buddha. London: SPCK. Revised. First published 1877.
    • Rost, E. R. 1930. ‘A Sangha for the West’, The Buddhist Annual of Ceylon 1930: 272–275.
    • Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. London: Routledge/Kegan Paul.
    • Senanayake, Manouri (ed.). 2021. Dhamma Gems; 100 Years 1921–2021 – 2565/2021 Centenary Publication of The Servants of the Buddha. Bambalapitiya, Colombo: Servants of the Buddha.
    • Sinnett, Alfred P. 1883. Esoteric Buddhism. London/Benares: Theosophical Publishing House.
    • Spence Hardy, Robert. 1866. The Legends and Theories of the Buddhists Compared with History and Science. London: Williams and Norgate.
    • Story, Francis. 1981. Early Western Buddhists: Extracts from Articles Published in ‘The Buddhist Review’. 1909–1914, Selected and Presented by Francis Story. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society. First published 1961.
    • Strong, John. 2001. The Buddha: A Short Biography. Oxford: Oneworld.
    • The Looking Glass. 1910a. ‘An Amazing Sect’, The Looking Glass (29 October): 140–142.
    • The Looking Glass. 1910b. ‘An Amazing Sect’, The Looking Glass (12 November): 203–205.
    • Turner, Alicia, Laurence Cox, and Brian Bocking. 2020. The Irish Buddhist: The Forgotten Monk Who Faced Down the British Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Tweed, Thomas A. 1992. The American Encounter with Buddhism 1844–1912. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
    • Wijeyesekera, Anoji. 2021. ‘One Hundred Years’, in Dhamma Gems; 100 Years 1921–2021 – 2565/2021 Centenary Publication of The Servants of the Buddha. Edited by Manouri Senanayake. Bambalapitiya, Colombo: Servants of the Buddha, 8–23.

Academic tools